Everett D. shows the audience a curious prop: a small, hollowed-out pumpkin—just the right size for hiding top secret microfilm. In today’s performance, 11th grader Everett is Whittaker Chambers, an historical American figure from the Cold War era. Chambers spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s but later renounced communism, became an editor for Time Magazine, and ultimately became a key figure in the anti-communist “witch hunts,” which began in the late 1940s.
Everett’s performance is the culminating project for the Cold War unit in Tassie Hadlock-Piltz’s Modern United States History class. Channeling Chambers, Everett explains how the writer, while serving as a communist spy, received classified documents on microfilm from Alger Hiss, a high-ranking official in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. He hid the documents in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his family farm in Maryland. Chambers’ revelation of the documents in 1948 to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led to Hiss’ trial and conviction on perjury charges and fomented continued accusations in the early Cold War era that communists had infiltrated the highest levels of American government.
Tassie’s students have been working on their monologues since late October, applying historical research and Wildwood’s Habits of Mind to create these personal stories.
Evan B, another 11th grader chose to portray playwright Arthur Miller, and uses his monologue to demonstrate skills in the Habit of Connection, linking history with his own passion for acting. As Miller, Evan stands assured before his peers, donning his signature horned-rimmed glasses as he bitterly reflects on his own run-ins with HUAC. Unlike Whittaker Chambers, though, Arthur Miller did not “name names,” endangering his own career in the process.
While Tassie helped guide her students’ historical research for this project, students also benefitted from the talents of performing arts teacher, Melissa Bales who assisted the students with specialized workshops, created to help them write monologues and bring life to their characters.
Sam C. illuminates another memorable American, Lucille Ball. Seated before her audience in a light-patterned gingham dress, holding an authentic (unlit) cigarette, Sam depicts this comedy queen as anything but laughable. The performance is notable not only for how Sam reveals her character’s complex personality, but also in how the performance demonstrates Sam’s acumen in the Habit of Perspective; she portrays the I Love Lucy star echoing the anger and fear that swept Hollywood during the late 1940s and 50s when actors, writers, and directors were accused of communist sympathies and threatened by HUAC into denouncing their peers to save their own careers.
As this is a history class, the Habit of Evidence also plays a crucial role in each student’s monologue. For example, in his portrayal of Jackie Robinson, 11th grader Jesse B. deftly excerpts the former Dodgers star’s own testimony before HUAC. 11th graders Morgan V. and Talya C. also deploy a wealth of historical evidence to construct realistic monologues to represent the condemned atomic bomb spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Watching each student’s carefully constructed character unfold a bit of history, it’s not just their dexterity in creating an unique historical illumination that’s compelling, but also a the fluency they enjoy in literally brining their own learning to life.
Sometimes in the Wildwood community this kind of extraordinary student work can start to seem ordinary. It’s not. Rather, this work is an intentional outcome of thoughtfully designed curricula and outstanding teacher guidance combined with very real student intellect and talent. We enjoy it, nurture it, and recognize it—as extraordinary.
~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning